Open Tom Gauld’s You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, and the first thing you’ll see (after the whimsical end paper) is this:
It’s a stamp, a statement, a challenge: Here are Tom Gauld’s obsessions and his sense of humor, and if you laughed you’re probably in it for the long haul.
Gauld draws his mischievous, occasionally melancholy comics for highbrow publications such as The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, but he’s very invested in destroying his readers’ pretensions. The book’s eponymous strip depicts an astronaut labeled “Science Fiction” soaring over the heads of a drab, tutting cluster of characters labeled “Proper Literature.” Another, titled “The Serious Rock Critic,” shows a balding man reminiscing about Mick Fleetwood and scolding a child for music piracy while the child, who is actually using the computer to compose a symphony with an international cadre of musicians, demands, “Can you go away now please.” The high-art gatekeepers aren’t villains, precisely, but they’re restrictive, boring, out-of-touch.
In fact, many of Gauld’s funniest comics are glorious mash-ups of high art and low art. One strip stars Charles Dickens as a Batman surrogate who created the London Underground to transport his steampunk Dickensmobile around the city. Others turn Great Expectations and the Bronte sisters into video games.
But by choosing to parody high art, Gauld both reveals his immense knowledge of the two “sides” of Western culture and assumes that his readers possess the same. The Great Expectations video game, for example, contains no labeling identifying it as such: in order to get the joke, the reader needs to recognize common elements of a desktop game (the inventory; the health and progress bars; even the “Close” x in the top right corner) in addition to the opening of Great Expectations (the player character is named “Pip”; the setting is a marshy graveyard; the enemy is a convict). I kept my phone next to me while reading so I could Google any references I didn’t understand (among my searches: controversial British artist Eric Gill; La Traviata; Emile Zola’s novel Germinal).
In this way Gauld becomes his own peculiar type of gatekeeper: comics that pack so many references into a one- or two-panel space have an inherently limited audience. Reading one Gauld comic is momentarily either funny or confusing; reading a full book of them is like listening to a book critic’s cocktail party. I find that kind of rapid, highwire allusiveness exhilarating; others may, with good reason, find it frustrating.
But no form of art, no matter how “low,” exists in a cultural vacuum. Long-standing comics genres have their own languages, in-jokes, and archetypes that require experience to understand. Deadpool succeeds because of its audience’s knowledge of superhero comics (and it occasionally pokes fun at more highbrow entertainment as well). Ouran High School Host Club both typifies and parodies the “reverse harem” genre of shojo manga.
Ultimately, I don’t think Gauld is – or should be – concerned about where his comics fall on the “cultural respectability” spectrum. If anything, his knowledge of Dickens and Verdi and Beckett has taught him that the line between high and low art is permeable, that the inevitable alteration of time and place will change the way any art is received. Gauld takes the languages that he knows and uses them to make people laugh, or think, or both – which is all that any artist, from Shakespeare to Stan Lee, can do.
In addition to You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Tom Gauld is best known for his graphic novel Goliath, about the Biblical giant. His next book, Mooncop, is scheduled for release in September 2016.